Very often, we walk away from our losses and just expect to recover. Well, we don't. Memories last forever, especially if they are torturous in nature and form. The best way is to work around the pain and address it the way we ought to. The tragedy of April 24, 2013 cannot be shoved aside in oblivion. For a long time, this date will continue to haunt us all in the forms of reports, op-eds, protests, seminars, television coverage, et al. Even if it does not get covered anywhere, grief will still be around. The scar, the damage, the hurt can only be addressed with a fresh commitment to turn things around. In fact, the tragedy of 2013 is best dealt with positive, transformative energy, to ensure that the death of more than 1,100 workers was not in vain.
How have we evolved? Aside from strengthening our buildings, fire and electrical safety, have we all learnt a far bigger lesson? What lesson have we learnt?
Many say that lack of collective bargaining led to the collapse of Rana Plaza. (I have a slightly different view. I often say that the industry needs to be represented through workers voicing their concerns through "collective expression." Somehow, the mere mention of "bargaining" prompts most of the industry owners to be defensive.) If there were elected leaders in the factories, would they have lived? Would they be able to negotiate their demands of abstinence from work on grounds of safety? Perhaps.
If so, does this tragedy teach us the need to listen to our workers more? Yes, it does. If so, does April 24 compel us to allow workers' voices to be heard in a more constructive manner? Yes, it does. Most unfortunately, the trust deficit between the trade union leaders and the owners has widened even more in the last couple of years and hence, in spite of the number of trade unions increasing, most owners are averse to formation of unions. For most of us, even an elected Workers' Welfare Association (WWA) or an elected Workers' Participatory Committee (WPC) is more acceptable and functioning. Fact is, WWA or WPC does the same thing as a trade union and no less. Yet, we shudder at the thought of trade unionists. The very mention of trade unions evokes images of illegal strikes, property damages, unlawful provocation of the workers, innumerable cases being filed against the owner, etc. Reality is, most of the trade union leaders legally have affiliations abroad. Therefore, perception of the trade union leaders directly writing letters to international organisations and brands instead of solving cases locally is common. In all fairness, neither the owner, nor the workers have a functional bridge between them. And even the little communication also goes bust when trade unionists are seen narrating workplace woes to our friends abroad instead of sitting directly with the production units. Even before we sense or know a particular problem within our own factories, workers' complaints reach international offices and get covered in world renowned dailies that routinely cover workplace abuse and malpractice. As a result, brands fearing bad press and negative exposure reduce or withdraw business and very soon after, the factory faces closure.
But, the fear of closure has now sunk in. Workers and trade unionists now know that factory closure cannot be the answer. Therefore, the discourse has now changed a bit. The recent demands include continuation of business from the brands and retailers so that the workers' livelihood is ensured. At the same time, bitterness has set in. Four years down the line, post-Rana Plaza, the labour leaders are still complaining about owners being reluctant about formation of trade unions. And the owners, at their end, are being defensive about having done enough in terms of structural, fire and electrical integrity. At the same time, most of us are also complaining about having spent too much money on remediation and relocation, and yet still having to face the demands of trade unions or workers' representatives. The demand of revision of minimum wage has again cropped up; the new speculations of EU and ILO of punishing Bangladesh for unfair labour practices is crippling the RMG industry with fears and the uncertainty of global consumerism has also added to the existing woes of most manufacturers. Our lives seem to be depending on Macron being elected in France, on Brexit somehow not being triggered, on even Trump favouring us over China or India. With so many national and international fears, and the fall in exports, the RMG industry is limping towards expansion.
How do we dispel fears of the owners and the workers' representatives? How do we truly examine both sides of the coin and reconcile with better understanding and empathy? The task is not too difficult, I believe. A couple of realisations need to set in:
1. If the trade union leaders are taking a hard position, it is because they have struggled too hard for too long. Suffering has led to hardening.
2. If the owners are talking tough, it is because they have often suffered surprise setbacks from trade unionists and cannot afford to have any disruption anymore.
3. If the trade union leaders are writing to international brands and retailers about issues and complaints instead of talking to the owners directly, it is because they believe that this is the fastest way to achieve results.
4. If the owners are reluctant to sit for a dialogue, it is because they genuinely believe that in the absence of external mediation, they function better with our workers.
How do we then go forward? Again, the answer is simple. Both workers and owners must believe that the only way to sustainable business is to champion the right cause. The cause of the workers is one worth fighting for. The cause of the owners of sustaining their businesses, while supporting better labour practices, is also a valid one. If trade unions are to work in this sector, trade unionists must understand that their organisations will have to beat all odds and become shining examples of good industrial relations (instead of trade union formations forcing businesses to shut shop) so that no factory ever shuns the idea of collective expression or bargaining. If owners are to invest more in labour, then workers also need to be told to trust the hands that feed them. At the end, the ship must be responsibly steered through stormy seas and brought ashore. Both parties need to engage with trust through dialogue. The tragedy of Rana Plaza has taught us all a lesson that we cannot afford to ignore or unlearn: reconciliation cannot be in the form of short doses of steroids, attempting to mask real pain. Real pain and real wounds require engagement of all stakeholders with complete understanding, patience and faith. Now is the time to realise that there is no alternative to a circle of trust and there is no alternative to freedom.
The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.